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Sovereign Schools: How Shoshones and Arapahos Created a High School on the Wind River Reservation

Sovereign Schools: How Shoshones and Arapahos Created a High School on the Wind River Reservation

by Martha Louise Hipp

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Sovereign Schools tells the epic story of one of the early battles for reservation public schools. For centuries indigenous peoples in North America have struggled to preserve their religious practices and cultural knowledge by educating younger generations but have been thwarted by the deeply corrosive effects of missionary schools, federal boarding schools, Bureau of Indian Affairs reservation schools, and off-reservation public schools. Martha Louise Hipp describes the successful fight through sustained Native community activism for public school sovereignty during the late 1960s and 1970s on the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes’ Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

Parents and students at Wind River experienced sustained educational discrimination in their school districts, particularly at the high schools located in towns bordering the reservation, not least when these public schools failed to incorporate history and culture of the Shoshones and Arapahos into the curriculum.

Focusing on one of the most significant issues of indigenous activism of the era, Sovereign Schools tells the story of how Eastern Shoshones and Northern Arapahos asserted tribal sovereignty in the face of immense local, state, and federal government pressure, even from the Nixon administration itself, which sent mixed signals to reservations by promoting indigenous “self-determination” while simultaneously impounding federal education funds for Native peoples. With support from the Coalition of Indian Controlled School Boards and the Episcopal Church, the Wind River peoples overcame federal and local entities to reclaim their reservation schools and educational sovereignty.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496213624
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 05/01/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Martha Louise Hipp, PhD, is a retired psychologist and formerly served as psychologist for the Fremont County District 14 federally funded schools. She is a former president of the Colorado Psychological Association.

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Massacres, "Agreements," Boarding Schools, and Strategies for Survival

The Northern Arapahos, the Sioux, and the Northern Cheyennes signed an agreement with the U.S. government in 1876 to leave the Black Hills and no longer wage war. They had to sign; they were dying of starvation and exposure. The "agreement" forced them to forfeit "all claims and hunting privileges in the land outside of the reservations" (apparently in retribution for the Sioux massacre of Custer and his men at the Little Bighorn), and so they were essentially confined on reservations. The government was to provide each tribe with an agency, a few employees, and a school with a teacher — rations too, if they sent their children to school. Avoiding this was not really an option on the Wind River Reservation where so little game remained. Black Coal (with Friday as his interpreter), was an intermediary for the Arapahos until his death in 1893. He was referred to by the agent as "great chief Black Coal — (who) at all times urged his people to send their children to school." Black Coal's urgings for schooling were a sign of peaceful cooperation, a necessity in this time of "war" and annihilation.

For nearly a decade before the 1876 agreement the Arapahos had encountered the power of overwhelming numbers and advanced weaponry intermingled with offers for white man's education; the 1864 Sand Creek massacre and mutilation of the dead bodies of Arapaho and Cheyenne men, women, and children (Sand Creek at Fort Wise, designated by government officials as a safe haven) was followed by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the first treaty to include education. It and the first Plains Indian treaty, the Fort Laramie (or Horse Creek) Treaty of 1851, failed as soon as they encountered settler hostilities for the lands and resources. President Grant's Peace Policy emphasized peace with church-run schools, but the "Indian wars" did not end. The U.S. military pursued reservation Northern Cheyenne and Sioux Indians "up and down" the Powder River country north and west of the Black Hills (in the territories of Montana and Wyoming) during the 1876–77 winter. Gunshots killed many; perhaps more (women, children, babies, and elderly) froze to death in the deep snow. The massacre at Wounded Knee was yet to come.

The context for the Native American experience in the first white schools was complicated and traumatic. The dominant society deliberately used education to eradicate tribal cultures and spearhead what was then thought of by some as a humanitarian movement to stop the killing and assimilate Indian people. This chapter is background for the core narrative of this book.

Protestant evangelical reformers and Catholics each sought the solution to the "Indian problem" through education. But prejudice in its most brazen forms along with ignorance of the central importance of tribal identity and culture diminished their perception of the humanity of Native Americans. Church leaders promised to instill the work ethic and patriotism — a good fit with the congressional intent of the individualization and Americanization of the noble and ignoble "savages."

And so the government contracted to help the churches finance schools — "contract schools," as they came to be called. Government teachers and matrons required the children to maintain the schools through their own labor to prepare them to become self-supporting individuals and no longer a "burden" on the government. Most important to the Protestant reformers was the means to "correct all evils": individual salvation. Indians, through developing patterns of individualism, would be freed from "the bondage to the tribe" and would become individual citizens "like all the other races in this country." People on the frontier engendered and supported the government policy; they assumed that tribal lands and resources would be put up for sale if tribal people would give up their communal life, disperse, and assimilate.

As the 1880s came to an end the government was directing the majority of its funding to the Catholics (thanks to presidential politics and lobbying by the Washington DC Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions), a source of great resentment among the predominant Protestants. Catholic immigration had steadily increased since the 1870s, and the Protestants saw a threat to their domination. They used the Catholic leaders' declaration of the infallibility of the pope as an anti-Catholic propaganda tool and "Americanism" as a front for the animosity that they felt against the Catholics. Native American children were affected by this conflict. Under pressure, Congress gradually eliminated direct appropriations for contract schools during the 1890s. After that the church-run schools continued to have access to per pupil funding through Indian treaty rights; the large congressional appropriations went to the "strongly Protestant" government schools.

But Catholic schools did not suffer for lack of funding. Wealthy Catholics gave large donations that provided for the construction of buildings and paid teachers' salaries. Katharine Drexel and her sisters, children of a "wealthy Philadelphia financier," were among the donors. Katharine gave thousands to St. Stephen's on the Wind River Reservation. Additionally, Indian treaty rights provided St. Stephen's, like other Catholic schools, with federal Indian funds. The Catholics did not ask the tribal council for their approval for the use of Indian federal trust funds (where past experience suggested that they would not be accommodated) but instead asked Arapaho families to give permission to use the communal federal funds after "a feed." The immediate need for food prevailed.

Indian boarding schools were the most important tool of the western assimilationist movement. There were four such schools on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The government independently funded only one, known as the Wind River Government Boarding School. Catholic and Episcopal priests carried out the churches' and the government's missions at the other three — to Christianize and "civilize" the Indian, with western expansion in mind.

The Rev. John Roberts, an Episcopalian, was the first missionary to arrive on the Wind River Indian Reservation, then called the Shoshone Indian Reservation. He came to Wyoming Territory seeking more meaningful work after an assignment in the Bahamas (where most were already converted) and began his work with a few student boys almost immediately. The boys chased skunks when free; the smelly odor permeated his one-room cabin. They slept on a carpet "padded with straw underneath." His betrothed followed him from the Bahamas three years later, by which time he had transformed from a clergyman dressed in tropical "whites" to a mountain man covered in furs and frost. They married on Christmas day at 4:00 p.m., the day she arrived after a five-thousand-mile journey. Their first home was in the one-room adobe boarding school at Fort Washakie. There he worked mainly with the Shoshones at the base of the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains.

Reverend Roberts had reached Fort Washakie in 1883 when an arctic storm dropped the temperature to sixty degrees below zero. The sled driver offered him a coat as they began the 150-mile trip from Green River, "Got you a coat? That ain't no coat, get you an extry one off'n m'bed." Roberts saw suffering from exposure at stage stations along the way and one stage driver frozen to death. The young Roberts officiated at the driver's burial in the deep snow. Roberts later attributed his survival to his constant digging of snow drifts away from the path of the horses and the sled upon which he rode. When they finally reached a point overlooking the Shoshone encampment, he and the driver saw what appeared to be fields of Japanese lanterns — an illusion created by teepees with sagebrush fires burning inside. The Indians had moved all their teepees closer to the agency for better access to rations.

A Catholic priest, Father Joannes Jutz, wisely planned his trip for the springtime of the following year but in so doing lost his chance to settle in with the Shoshones — "first come, first gained," he observed. Seeing the circumstance, he immediately traveled twenty-seven miles from the western side of the reservation to the southeast corner where the Arapahos reside — the "Arapahoe" area, as it is spelled there. That night the reverberations of a "big base [sic] drum" and the "ghostly incantations" of medicine men ministering to an ill woman kept him awake. The very next morning he performed Mass under the observant and ritually experienced eyes of Chief Black Coal, his two wives, and two children.

Father Jutz helped construct a convent on the triangular delta between the Little and Big Wind Rivers where he could barely see the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains across the wide expanse of arid sagebrush and prairie lands. The convent crumbled the next spring from torrents of mountain snow-melt breaking through its walls and washing away the sands at its base.

The Catholics took years to open St. Stephen's Catholic Mission School. Several groups of teaching nuns arrived but soon left again; eventually the Sisters of St. Francis came from Philadelphia and stayed well into the 1960s in spite of the "difficulty and hardship."

President Arthur assigned the care of the Wind River Indians to the Episcopal Church. Roberts, who had been sent to the Wind River to establish an Indian mission, worked with the U.S. Indian agent (later agents were titled "superintendents") to establish the reservation's government school, a low, dimly lit adobe building built by 1884. Its "heavy iron bars" on its few windows kept hostile intruders out and the unruly boys in at night.

The government school held up to ninety Arapaho and Shoshone boarders by the fall of 1886. The government replaced the adobe building with a new "bright and airy" building with dormitories in 1892. But Roberts's dream was to establish a church school. The Shoshone chief Washakie gave 160 acres to bring the dream to fruition; the Shoshones laid the cornerstone in 1889. Roberts's school was the Shoshone Episcopal Mission School and was for girls only. There he worked, preaching, teaching, and farming until he died at the age of ninety-six. He was never able to raise the money to include boys but believed that the girls should come first since they were the home makers who would acculturate others with "civilization" when they returned to the camps.

The Wind River boarding schools, with the exception of Roberts's mission school, were culturally repressive and harsh in their treatment of children. The trauma from early childhood separation from parents followed by abusive treatment and illness can hardly be overstated. An Arapaho woman, hearing a "white-washed" boarding school account of "procurement" of children cried, "They came shouting and pounding on the door! Parents were terrified." Some tried to hide their children in the sage-covered hills, but without food, water and shelter that could not have lasted for long. Strangers in long black dresses came on wagons and took them away as young as age four. The feisty ones immediately jumped out of school windows and tried to run away. Their language, only partially learned, was usually stunted for lack of usage and for inculcated shame; it could not be spoken in three of the four schools.

St. Stephen's Catholic school held 58 students on average in 1893, and the new Government Boarding School had an average of 174 children by 1896. Deadly epidemics spread rapidly and with "peculiar severity" in the wet and cold; 80 of the 174 were "sick in bed" all at one time with measles. Trachoma, a painful and in those days incurable eye disease that could lead to blindness, also plagued the students. Fifty-one percent of the students on the Wind River Reservation had it in 1912, the highest rate among all reservations. After tuberculosis, officials considered trachoma to be the most serious of the diseases that spread among the students. The government school had a 50 percent death rate until 1901, when "after much delay" the government granted Roberts's requests to allow children to visit their homes.

Roberts allowed the building of teepee playhouses at the Shoshone Episcopal Mission School where the girls played Indian games and sang Indian songs. They also kept their long braids. Perhaps it was that he had five young children or that he had seen so many die. The school was relatively small, about twenty-five students in 1896.

Helen Cedartree in Wind River Memories describes a second Episcopal Mission boarding school, St. Michael's, located six miles east of the Shoshone school in the sage-covered plains of the Arapaho settlement known as Ethete ("Where they shed their coverings"). The Episcopalians established the mission in 1913 on land that they purchased from Arapaho leaders Yellow Calf and Seth Willow. A few boys attended St. Michael's Mission School at first; it was mainly for girls until the church completed a building for boys in 1918. The teachers made certain that the boys in attendance before 1918 were kept separate from the girls at night; the girls slept in four one-story buildings (fifteen to twenty-five in each), while the boys slept in the church on hammocks that were tied to the rafters.

Schools were not the only tool used to assimilate Indians. Congress passed the General Allotment Act in 1887 (the Dawes Act) to end tribal ownership of land and assign it to individual Native Americans or heads of households. Protestant reformers were the moving force behind the bill; it was assumed that individual ownership would "substitute white civilization for his (communitarian) tribal culture." The Dawes Act also promised other benefits; it made possible the sale of Native American land piece by piece. The non-Indians used their laws to claim what they had promised to the Native Americans and left them impoverished.

Two-thirds of all reservation lands, those of the greatest value, were sold under the Dawes Act. In March 1905 Congress ratified an agreement that made 1.3 million acres of desirable Wind River "surplus" reservation lands with federally backed irrigation projects available for settler purchase. According to Fowler in Arapahoe Politics, the government negotiator, James McLaughlin, "informed the tribes" that there had been a Supreme Court decision that gave the tribes no choice; it was "a courtesy that they were discussing the matter at all." These lands in the northeastern triangle of the reservation were over one-half of the then approximately 2,354,000-acre reservation. Irrigation ditch work permitted the Arapahos to move to camps on the family's allotment in the summer, and when the water was shut off in the wintertime they moved back to areas near the river for access to water. The government restored most of the land to the reservation in 1939, but the 171,000 acres not restored, termed the "Riverton Reclamation Project," are still populated mostly by non-Indians. The tribes are buying it back as it becomes available. This land runs from the center of the reservation to its eastern side, approximately ten miles northeast of Ethete. It is politically important to this story because of its non-Indian occupancy. Riverton itself is a "doughnut hole" inside the southeast corner of the reservation. Its population of nearly eleven thousand is approximately 85 percent non-Indian. Riverton was determined by the EPA to be a legal part of the reservation in 2013, but that was not the final decision; a three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2017 that Congress did intend to "diminish the size of the reservation" based on the 1905 McLaughlin "agreement," which removed Riverton from the reservation to the state up to the present time. The tribes are appealing that decision to the full twelve-judge Tenth Circuit Court.

Native Americans are constantly reminded, by white and "mixed-blood" ownership of reservation land, of their need to remain vigilant and educationally accomplished regarding their legal status. Prejudiced perceptions had imparted a special disregard for ordinary rights, disregard that furthered indigenous impoverishment. Non-Indian resentment of Indian ownership most certainly played its part in the twentieth-century prejudice and conflict over Indian control of a school. It was prejudice that, in spite of the following history, allowed members of the two Wind River tribes to join in their struggle for the school.

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came through the Rocky Mountains in 1805 with Sacajewea as their guide, she found her brother, Câmeahwait, "gaunt with starvation." As Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition describes, "She ran and embraced him & threw her blanket over him & cried profusely." Câmeahwait advised Lewis and Clark on directions for their journey as the hard frosts of August warned the expedition to hurry out of the mountains. Chief Washakie and Sacajewea are sources of great pride and give historical roots to the Eastern Shoshones of the Wind River. A majestic statue of Sacajewea stands in the Fort Washakie cemetery where metal headboards lean into the earth and plastic roses fade.


Excerpted from "Sovereign Schools"
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Copyright © 2019 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
List of Abbreviations,
1. Precursors: Massacres, "Agreements," Boarding Schools, and Strategies for Survival,
2. Self-Determination: A Twentieth-Century Use for the Schools,
3. Why the Wind River People Wanted a School: Late 1960s,
4. False Promises: Mid-1971,
5. The Non-Indian Fight over Indian Resources: Fluid Minerals and Hard Feelings, 1969–72,
6. Reservation Organizations Oppose the School: Early 1970s,
7. Indian School Opens: 1971–72,
8. Indian People Speak, Face Retaliation: 1972–73,
9. Fights in the Wyoming and Federal Courts: 1973–75,
10. Control of Their Destiny: 1975–80s,
11. As Seen from the Sun Dance Grounds: A Public School,

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